Content Knowledge and Critical Thinking Go Hand-in-Hand

February 10, 2020 Updated: February 10, 2020
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Suppose you want some healthy lifestyle advice. A dietary consultant suggests that instead of identifying specific foods to include in your diet, you should develop a healthier way of thinking about food. Is this good advice?

Obviously not, because it promotes a false dichotomy. A key part of a healthier lifestyle is making better daily food choices. This requires identifying foods you should eat and foods you should avoid. It’s all well and good to develop a healthier way of thinking but good thoughts are meaningless unless they are accompanied by specific action. Improving your health takes both good thoughts and better food choices.

Sadly, false dichotomies like this abound in the field of education. One of the worst is the notion that teachers should focus on critical thinking skills and spend less time ensuring students master specific content knowledge.

For example, the Alberta Teachers Association recently published an editorial by education professor Carla Peck that contrasted the memorization of facts with so-called historical thinking skills. Peck stated that she is supportive of including more world history in the social studies curriculum “provided that the focus is not on memorizing dates, places, names, and events but more so on developing students’ ‘historical thinking.’”

Peck explains that she wants students to “learn how to analyze primary and secondary sources, analyze change over time, assess the historical significance of people and events from the past, analyze multiple historical perspectives on global issues, and make connections between global events to their lives and to contemporary society.” Now, these are useful skills that students should learn how to do.

However, without memorizing dates, places, names, and events, students will struggle to think critically about history. Hopefully, Peck recognizes that some memorization of key facts is necessary. Even so, she should know that it is decidedly unhelpful to juxtapose memorizing facts with developing historical thinking skills. That’s because it sends the false message that teachers should either help students acquire content knowledge OR encourage them to think critically. The reality is that content knowledge and critical thinking go hand-in-hand.

Far from being irrelevant pieces of trivia, content knowledge provides students with the essential building blocks that make higher-level learning and critical thinking possible. It is not hard to see why this is true. Take two students, one who knows many facts about Métis leader Louis Riel and another who has never heard about him. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out which student is more likely to develop a deep understanding of the historical grievances of the Métis people.

The same holds true in all other subject areas. Mathematics is an obvious case in point. A student who knows the multiplication tables by memory is far more likely to succeed at solving algebraic equations than a student who needs a calculator to answer basic questions such as 7 x 8. This is because the student who does not know the multiplication tables is more likely to become bogged down and confused by trying to solve sequential, multi-step problems.

Unfortunately, provincial education departments are often complicit in promoting false skills versus knowledge dichotomy. Several years ago, British Columbia revamped its curriculum to focus on critical thinking skills and less on acquiring content knowledge. The B.C. Ministry of Education’s official website contains the following statement: “The deep understanding and application of knowledge is at the centre of the new model, as opposed to the memory and recall of facts that previously shaped education around the globe for many decades.”

Despite what some bureaucrats in British Columbia’s education department might think, there can be no deep understanding and application of knowledge without the memory and recall of basic facts. Being well-informed about a topic is the first step in thinking critically about it. Ignorant people do not think critically—ever.

The reality is that content knowledge and critical thinking have always belonged together. Just as students should not simply memorize facts without understanding the bigger picture, teachers cannot expect students to develop critical thinking skills in the absence of specific content knowledge. Since these two things belong together, we need to stop presenting them as opposites and instead recognize them as partners. Critical thinking requires content knowledge.

Imagine how much better it would be if provinces revamped their curriculum guides to ensure that students acquire specific content knowledge in a logically sequential way. Along with knowledge acquisition, students would then develop critical thinking skills by engaging with a knowledge-rich curriculum and a competent teacher. After learning about the key individuals and events that led to Confederation in 1867, students will be well-positioned to provide some critical thoughts on why our country developed the way it did.

If we want to promote real, in-depth learning in our schools, we must jettison false dichotomies that position content knowledge and critical thinking against each other. Content knowledge and critical thinking go hand-in-hand. Both are required for a good education.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.